Overview - Snake River Dams

The Snake River watershed, which covers significant portions of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and parts of Wyoming, and Nevada, is one of the largest and most ecologically important watersheds in the United States. Historically, it supported some of the largest and most genetically rich salmon and steelhead runs in the world. Chinook, coho, sockeye, and steelhead used to fill the river and its tributaries annually. To date, the largest summer-run steelhead ever caught on rod and reel in Washington State (35 lbs.) came from the Snake in 1973. Throughout most of the 20th century, tributaries of the Snake like the Clearwater River in Idaho were famous for their giant wild steelhead, many of which went well over 20 lbs. and a few of which reached 30 lb. class. Then, in 1955 construction began on the first of four dams on the Lower Snake River in Washington. The fourth was operational by 1975. By the early 1990's, salmon returns on the Snake had plummeted by over 90% from their pre-dam levels (which had already suffered tremendously from overfishing and a variety of other impacts).

Today those magnificent giants are gone, and Snake River salmon and steelhead runs are only a pale shadow of what they were. Though many factors were involved, this was mainly due to the direct and proxy effects of the four dams, all of which are owned and operated by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers. In 1991, the unique and genetically important Redfish Lake, ID Evolutionarily Significant Unit (ESU) of sockeye salmon (onchorhyncus nerka) was reduced to only a few returning individuals and granted Endangered status under the Endangered Species Act. In 1992, the Lower Snake River metapopulation of spring/summer chinook salmon (onchorhynchus tschawytscha) was listed as Threatened (these chinook once sustained runs of well over 1.5 million fish annually). Today according to a recent study funded by Trout Unlimited, unless the status of the Lower Snake changes significantly, they will be extinct by 2018. The Snake River coho salmon (onchorhynchus kisutch) is already extinct. Based on the severe and ongoing impact these dams have had, and continue to have, on Snake River anadromous fish runs, proposals were put forth during the 90's to breach all four dams and restore the natural river channel.

These proposals touched off a firestorm of controversy which persists to this day. Proponents of breaching point to the extensive scientific knowledge base which clearly supports restoration of the natural river channel as the best available option for salmon recovery. They also point to the damage done to fisheries in Western states and the expense of maintaining the 4 dams and the industries they support—all of which have operated at a net loss for some time and require expensive taxpayer and ratepayer subsidies to stay solvent. However, many Eastern Washington and Idaho residents who have grown to depend on these heavily subsidized services were outraged. Removing the dams, it was claimed, would destroy Washington State's economy, put entire rural communities out of work, and drive power rates through the ceiling all across Washington and Idaho.

Farmers and farming communities in particular claimed that breaching the dams would ruin their way of life, and Republican politicians (who are heavily supported in Eastern Washington and Idaho farming communities) raced to their defense. In a July 1999 speech, then Senator Slade Gorton (R-WA) claimed that breaching the dams would "destroy the way of life in Eastern Washington, eliminate our transportation system, raise electricity rates and cost our farmers their irrigation water." He said "What do we get by removing the 4 Snake River dams? Shattered lives, displaced families and communities.... generations of family farmers penniless" (in reality, only 37,000 acres of farmland would be impacted - less than 1% of that in Washington, and nearly all of it is owned by corporate agribusinesses rather than private farming families). Reps. Doc Hastings (R-WA), George Nethercutt (R-WA) and other politicians who represent Eastern Washington districts also voiced strident opposition to breaching. In 1992 former when speaking of the spotted owl controversy, President George Bush Sr. said, "It's time we worried not only about endangered species, but endangered jobs"—a battle cry that resonated with dam dependent communities.

Since then, slogans like "Save Our Dams" and "People Or Salmon?" have become common throughout rural districts in Washington and Idaho - odd battle cries in light of the fact that the Snake River dams are federally, not locally owned, and the decline of Snake salmon runs has severely impacted thousands of non-native and native commercial fishermen as well as formerly thriving Washington and Idaho sport fisheries. During the 70's, by some estimates, the wild salmon and steelhead runs of Snake tributaries like the Clearwater and Salmon Rivers supported a $60 million sportfishing industry and some 1800 jobs in Idaho alone (without taxpayer and ratepayer subsidies!)—jobs which are now largely gone with the demise of these fish. Apparently, these communities don't fit within the working definition of "people".

The backlash has even targeted Gary Locke who was then Governor of Washington, despite the fact that he had been opposed to breaching throughout his political career (a popular Eastern WA. bumper sticker proclaims "Save the Dams—Remove the Lockes"). Locke, a Democrat, and thus already unpopular in heavily Republican Eastern WA., has said that he would be willing to reconsider breaching if, in his opinion, solid science and economics could be presented in favor of it. Apparently, it is this stated willingness to put science and economics ahead of the wishes of barging and agribusiness interests if necessary, that has angered so many Eastern WA. voters.

Given that the science of salmon recovery clearly supports dam breaching, it is not very profitable for breaching opponents to pursue scientific arguments, so it's not surprising that pro-dam campaigns generally concentrate on forecasts of economic disaster like those above. It is certainly understandable why these forecasts would be convincing to those who live in dam dependent communities. Nevertheless, very few of them rely on any actual economic research, and fewer still willingly address the subject of public subsidies to dam benefactors. But there is a wealth of economic data regarding the costs of maintaining these dams and their services, and the returns those services generate—data that allows for reliable predictions to be made regarding the economic impacts of breaching them.

In recent years, a number of independent studies have been done that make use of these data and provide such estimates. Most of these also present a number of alternatives for economic aid and market adjustments that can mitigate impacts for economies currently dependent on the dams. These studies speak directly to the question of whether or not breaching the Snake dams will bring economic ruin to Washington State as proponents of the dams claim. This page provides links to some of the more thorough of the studies done to date including economic research by ECONorthhwest, one of the Pacific Northwest's largest and most respected economic consulting firms, and the Oregon Natural Resources Council.

Addressed in these reviews are the contributions of the dams to Washington's hydropower budget and the alternatives, the current structure of farming and barging economies in rural Eastern Washington and Idaho that are dependent on the Snake River dams and their lack of viability without public support, the direct impact of dam breaching on these economies, and the various federal and local options for helping them become self-sufficient by shifting to more productive non-dam related activities. These reports show not only that dam breaching will not ruin rural Washington and Idaho economies, it will likely benefit them. Also linked is an analysis by U. of Oregon economist Ed Whitelaw of the costs and benefits of breaching the 4 Lower Snake River dams to protect endangered salmon runs, including a review of the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers year 2000 economic impact assessment, and the many misconceptions surrounding those costs. Whitelaw shows that the Corps' analysis was based on a flawed economic assumptions regarding how economies react to external forces. In particular, the Corps assumed that jobs lost due to breaching would not be absorbed by other economic sectors and impacted businesses would make no attempts to adapt to the changing environment—assumptions which have little bearing on reality.


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